SHE was injured and trapped, strapped into her mangled seat, hanging upside down with her head just inches from tonnes of mud, which had poured into the fuselage as the plane careered inverted off the runway.
Amid anguished screams of pain and cries for help, she could smell fuel and an engine fire burning just yards away.
Heather Elliot said she feared she would be burned alive. She reached a hand out to Laurence Wilson, trapped in his seat nearby.
Even though his head was covered in suffocating mud, he said he grasped Heather’s hand... to comfort her. And together they prayed.
Within seconds, they could hear the sounds of fire extinguishers and the voices of rescuers. Minutes later they were cut free and rushed to hospital.
This was just one of several traumatic scenes recalled in graphic detail yesterday as statements from the six survivors of the State’s worst aviation disaster were read during the inquests into the deaths of the crash’s six victims.
Four passengers and the two pilots died on February 10, 2011, when the 19-seat Fairchild SA227-BC Metro III aircraft en route from Belfast to Cork crashed on its third landing attempt in heavy fog at Cork Airport.
The doomed flight was operated under the terms of an arrangement involving Spanish company Flightline BCN, which held a Spanish Air Operator Certificate, ticket seller, Manx2, based in the Isle of Man, and another Spanish firm, AirLada, which supplied the aircraft and crew under an agreement with Manx2.
The pilot and captain, Jordi Sola-Lopez, 31, from Manresa, Barcelona; co-pilot Andrew John Cantle, 27, from Sunderland; Patrick Gerard Cullinan, 45, from Malone Rd, Belfast; Brendan McAleese, 39, from Kells, Co Antrim; Richard Kenneth Noble, 48, from Jordanstown, Belfast; and Joseph Michael Evans, 51, from Belfast, were all pronounced dead at a field hospital set up on the airfield, county coroner Frank O’Connell was told.
Five of the six passengers who survived — Mark Dickens, Heather Elliot, Donal Walsh, Peter Cowley, and Laurence Wilson — attended the first day of the hearing. All believed they were flying with Manx2 — their tickets were booked on the company’s website.
In their witness statements, they recalled an uneventful flight from Belfast that morning and the two aborted landings at Cork Airport.
They said they were not too concerned as the plane entered a holding pattern before the pilots said they were going to make a third landing attempt as weather conditions improved. Some of the survivors recalled the plane coming in at an angle to Cork’s main runway moments before impact.
Mr Walsh, who sitting at the rear of the plane, said he was “a bit surprised” that he could see grass as the aircraft came in to land and he “knew it wouldn’t be smooth”. He adopted the brace position — putting his head between his legs, and his hands over his head.
He recalled a very evasive manoeuvre and felt the plane jerk right, and then knew it was going to crash. He felt the plane turn over, heard the engines roaring, and waited for a final blow.
When the plane came to rest, he unbuckled his seat and was able to make his way towards light at the rear of the plane where he was met by airport fire fighters.
Ms Elliot said she recalled the plane descending into thick fog. “And the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should brace myself,” she said.
“There was a bit of niggle in my mind that something wasn’t right, and I was concerned that the pilots couldn’t see where they were going — the fog was so thick. I remember the wheels being lowered and I was waiting for the thump on the ground. I felt the thump and was expecting the thrust of the engines but then suddenly it was like a car crash. I felt myself tumbling and the space around me getting smaller.”
As the aircraft flipped on to its roof and slid on to the grassy verge off the runway, tonnes of mud and water poured into the smashed fuselage. Ms Elliot said when the aircraft came to rest and she realised she was not seriously injured, she feared she would be burned alive. “The most frightening bit was when somebody said ‘she’s going to go up’ meaning the plane was going to go on fire,” she said. “I could smell fire and fuel and I was so terrified that I had survived the crash and now would be burned alive.”
A frequent flyer on this route, Mr Wilson said he could see grass rather than runway seconds before impact. He said he felt that the ground appeared too close and he felt that the plane was going too fast.
Others said they felt the engines power up seconds before impact, and the plane bank sharply to the right. Mark Dickens said he could see the pilots check charts after the second aborted landing but he said there was no sense of urgency or panic.
“The pilot and co-pilot were chatting, and then we stared to descend,” he said.
“As we came through the cloud, I suddenly saw the runway only about 30 feet away. We seemed to be coming in at an angle, rather than straight on to it, I’d say 45 degrees. I knew we were travelling too fast and I said ‘fuck, we’re going to crash’. I felt the engine surge and we banked to the right. The wing I was sitting next to touched the runway. Then there was just noise and screaming. I could feel my whole right hand side getting wet.
“I couldn’t move, my foot was wedged in to a seat, and I had some seats on top of me as well. I could then smell smoke and petrol and realised we were on fire. And within about 30 seconds I could hear rescuers and banging on the outside of the plane shouting ‘we’re here, we’re here, don’t worry’.”
As emergency workers climbed in to the mangled wreckage, he said he could hear a man who had been sitting in front him cry out: ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. My name is Brendan. Please help.’ ”
It was later confirmed that this was Mr Mallon.
Mr Cowley could see the cockpit from his second row seat. After the second aborted landing, he said he saw the pilots check Farranfore and Shannon airports as possible alternatives, and he texted his mother, who was waiting for him in Cork, to say his flight may be diverted. He does not remember the crash, and only remembers waking up in hospital two days later.
The deceased were all pronounced dead at around 11.20am by Stephen Cusack on the airfield. They were identified through their passports and personal items before being removed to Cork University Hospital.
Margot Bolster, the assistant State pathologist, said all would have been killed almost instantly. The cause of death in all cases was mainly blunt force trauma to their heads, chests and abdomens.
In the case of Mr Evans, Dr Bolster said death would have been “virtually instantaneous”. Co-pilot Mr Cantle also had fractures in his hands, forearm, and wrist, consistent with being in control of the aircraft at the time of impact.
The inquest continues.
Mr Walsh, 26, from Waterford, had been in Belfast for work, and was flying to Cork before heading home. He was sitting at the back of the plane — in the second seat from the rear, on the right hand side of the aircraft. He walked from the wreckage.
The 58-year-old businessman from Antrim was flying to Cork on business.
He had flown this route several times before.
He was sitting two seats in front of Mr Walsh, on the left side of the plane, just behind its left wing. He had to be cut from the wreckage.
Ms Elliot, 57, was flying to Cork to visit her mother, who lives in Kinsale. She was sitting opposite Mr Wilson, one seat back from what she believed was an emergency door on the right side of the aircraft. She also had to be cut from the wreckage.
From Glanmire, Co Cork, Mr Cowley, 35, was sitting in a seat two rows behind the cockpit. He is the only survivor from the front of the plane. He remembers nothing of the accident, but recalls waking in Cork University Hospital some time later. He thanked the emergency services yesterday.
39-year-old Falcon Travel worker Mr Mallon was flying to Cork to do promotional work at a Falcon shop in Bandon. It was his first time flying with the Manx2 airline. He recalls the aircraft banking before impact but can only remember waking up in intensive care later.
The 45-year-old British-based businessman was flying to Cork on business. He chose a seat on the right side of the aircraft. five or six rows back from the cockpit, because it had more legroom.
He said he knew the plane was going to crash seconds before the impact.
The first emergency workers on the scene of the Manx2 crash site have recalled the horrific scenes they faced moments after impact.
Airport Fire and Police service member Kevin Dunne said he responded to the station alarm at 9.52am on February 10, 2011, and was advised that a plane may have crashed on runway 17.
The fog was so bad that air traffic controllers couldn’t see the runway, or establish where the aircraft had crashed. Mr Dunne said he drove his jeep on to the runway and saw a debris trail, followed it, and found the stricken aircraft inverted, with both engines on fire, 40m west of the runway. He ran to the aircraft and said: “There was no sign of survivors at that stage.”
Fire engines were now on the scene and they deployed foam to fight the engine fires, bringing the blazes under control very quickly.
Despite the dangers posed by tonnes of aviation fuel which had spilled from the port wing, airport firefighters were already using cutting equipment to remove the aircraft’s port-side cargo door.
“The ground around the aircraft was very soft. There was a lot of steam and humidity inside. It was a very compact and confined working space,” he said.
AFP member John McCarthy was the first rescue worker into the fuselage: “We opened the cargo door and removed luggage, and then a partition in to the passenger area. One passenger walked out.”
He and his colleagues had to crawl through up to a metre of mud to get inside the fuselage, before cutting several mangled seats free to extricate the other survivors. Heather Elliot was first to be removed, followed by Laurence Wilson.
By now, the city and county major emergency action plan had been activated and members of Cork City Fire Service had arrived at the scene. They were working on the front of the aircraft, where most of the casualties were found.
A traffic corridor had been secured between the airport and Cork University Hospital to ferry the injured to hospital. Coroner Frank O’Connell described the conditions in and around the stricken aircraft as “terrible”.
The airport firefighters have previously been hailed as heroes for their swift response.
In total, almost 200 people were involved in the emergency plan.
By Noel Baker
The Manx2 flight had a “catastrophic loss of control” after it was flown to the runway by a “tired” and “fatigued” co-pilot not fully in charge of the instruments.
The inquest into the deaths of six people in February 2011 yesterday heard evidence from the chief inspector into the crash that the co-pilot, Andrew John Cantle, was in control of the steering mechanisms but would not have expected pilot Jordi Sola Lopez to put the engines into reverse thrust just seconds before the attempted landing.
It was irregular for one pilot to be in control of steering and another to be in control of the engines, the court heard.
Leo Murray of the Department of Transport’s Air Accident Investigation Unit described it as an “unco-ordinated operation” and used a black binder to illustrate exactly how dramatically the aircraft banked first to the left, then to the right, with the tip of the right wing hitting the runway.
He said the loss of management of the power plant — the co-ordination of both the propeller and the engines simultaneously — was “the key to the loss of control” in the crash. Of the “split control” of the plane, he said: “It would not be standard operating procedure to do that.”
He said both Mr Lopez and Mr Cantle had experience as co-pilots but were relatively inexperienced in the type of circumstances they faced trying to land in dense fog in Cork Airport.
Mr Murray said Mr Cantle had been flying the aircraft for one hour 50 minutes by the time of the third approach at Cork. “From a workload point of view, he was quite saturated. This is his third approach. He is getting tired, he is getting fatigued.”
Flying just to the right of the centre line, it is understood Mr Cantle veered left to correct his flightline, only for the aircraft to then bank further to the left by 40 degrees. The plane then rolled to the right, with the wing hitting the runway.
The court also heard on a standard category one approach to landing, as befits an aircraft like the Manx2, pilots needed a minimum of 300m of visibility of the runway to attempt a landing.
On the first landing attempt, the plane dipped to 101ft and then, on the second, went lower again at 91ft before pulling up. Flying so low to the ground, or going below the minimum decision height on approach, was “not justified in this case”, Mr Murray said.
He also said any decision on a fresh approach or heading for an alternative airport was solely at the discretion of the pilot. While an alternative landing at Kerry, where the weather was favourable, was “briefly considered”, the Manx2 went in for the third approach at Cork.
The court also heard details about a faulty sensor in engine two on the plane, which meant there was different thrusting capacity there versus that in engine one.
Mr Murray said flight records shows the aircraft had flown 106 hours with the defect. Other crews who had flown during that time had not indicated that it had been a problem.
“That on its own would not have caused the loss of control that was evident on the day.”
Mr Murray added he did not think the pilots on board the flight to Cork would have been aware of the problem.